Private art collectors build public galleries

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AAFTER CLEANING Thanks to his invention of bagless vacuum cleaners, Sir James Dyson, one of Britain’s richest men, envisions a more glamorous legacy for himself. Last summer he and his wife Deirdre, who both studied art, applied for permission to build an exhibition space in Dodington Park, their Gloucestershire estate, to show off their collection of pop art which includes Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Yves Klein and David Hockney. The gallery will be open to the public, free of charge, for one month each year.

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The Dysons are reviving a once common practice. The National Gallery in London was established in a townhouse in Pall Mall in 1824, when 38 old masters that belonged to John Julius Angerstein, an emigrant banker of Russian origin, were exhibited. The Walker and Lady Lever Galleries were based on the collections of Liverpool businessmen, the Burrell Collection on a gift from a Glasgow shipping magnate and the National Museum of Wales on the generosity of the two Davies sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret, who had collected fabulous impressionist paintings. But war and taxes took over from artistic philanthropy, and the tradition faded away.

In the art market boom that began in the 1980s, galleries that were showcases for the art trade, like that of Charles Saatchi, flourished. In 2014 Hauser & Wirth (H&W), a Swiss art dealer with global ambitions, has opened a rural outpost in Somerset, his sixth gallery on two continents, proving that contemporary art is not just a metropolitan affair. The move put the small town of Bruton on the map of art lovers; it has become so popular that H&W now charges up to £ 1,375 ($ 1,875) a night for a double room in the neighboring farmhouse which it has turned into a small hotel. But the revival of private galleries established for the public good in Britain is recent.

In this, Britain is behind schedule, according to the Global Private Museum Network. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has long been a role model for wealthy Americans, and over the past two decades wealthy Germans have embraced it. Karen and Christian Boros, for example, transformed a massive (and extremely ugly) Nazi-era air raid shelter into a private house and public gallery in central Berlin. The Chinese do it too, but often to increase the value of real estate programs.

Britain could start to catch up. Charles Saumarez Smith, former managing director of the Royal Academy, believes that country house owners are more inclined to collect contemporary art these days, but the good taste and benevolence of the wealthy is not entirely to blame. Planners are more likely to grant permission for large buildings if the public has access to them.

In addition to the Dysons, Cate Blanchett, an Australian actress living in Britain, was recently given permission to build a gallery on the grounds of her home in East Sussex to replace a dilapidated oast house. New riches are not the only benefactors. Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby of Eresby, has been granted permission to build a new exhibition space at Grimsthorpe Castle, her family’s home since the 16th century. Nancy Astor’s granddaughter, 86, has amassed a fantastic collection, which includes paintings by Lucian Freud, her lover until his death in 2011. The Lincolnshire plains on which her castle stands are rich in cabbages but not in cultivation, so his plan to sow them with art will undoubtedly be welcome.

This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Wall power”


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